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Guest Thinkers

Could Smaller School Districts Have Prevented Atlanta Cheating Scandal?

Here in Atlanta, the cheating scandal at the Atlanta Public School system has been front page news every day. The new superintendent is cleaning house based on the findings of an 800 page report from the governor’s office while the old superintendent has just retired and is laying low in Hawaii. In the years down the road, when this scandal has become a distant memory, the APS system will still be a behemoth, with over 54,000 K-12 students and more than 6000 teachers, staffers and administrators.

Could the idea of creating smaller school districts in large urban areas make more of a difference in their student’s scholastic achievement level?

1. The higher the level of poverty in a community served by a school, the more damage larger schools and school districts inflict on student achievement. In more affluent communities, the impact of school and district size is quite small, but the poorer the community, the stronger the influence.

2. The achievement gap between children from more affluent and those from less affluent communities is narrowed in smaller schools and smaller districts, and widened in larger schools and larger districts.

3. Smaller schools are most effective against poverty when they are located in smaller districts; they are less effective when they are located in larger districts. Poverty dampens student achievement most in larger schools located in larger districts.

4. The relationship between school size, poverty, and student achievement is as much as three times greater in schools with the largest percentage of African American students.


There is no doubt, though, that back in 1999, Dr. Hall was handed a very tough situation, and to her credit, she implemented a lot of reforms that were necessary for APS to even keep treading water academically. But one of the built-in buffers that large organizations of any type provide its leaders with is deniability, usually by providing enough management layers and back channels of communication to keep the big wig’s fingerprints off the smoking gun. A lot of my ATL buddies won’t like what I’m going to say here, but principals do not put their licenses at risk for no reason, and teachers don’t put their jobs on the line by participating in cheating scandals for the fun of it. Unless Beverly Hall is going to prove to us that she was the “straw boss” of APS, this cheating scandal is her baby, stinky diaper and all.

Poverty’s negative effect on school performance is greatest in larger schools located in larger districts, in all grades and for all tests. It is appreciably lower for smaller schools operating in larger districts, in all grades and for all tests. But it is dramatically lower for smaller schools located in smaller districts, again, in all grades and for all tests.

Smaller schools operating in smaller districts cut poverty’s power on average by about twice as much as smaller schools that have to operate in larger districts. The authors conclude that within larger districts, there is something to be gained in school performance by making schools smaller. There is even more to be gained by breaking up the larger districts themselves.

There is very little to be gained in school performance by enlarging smaller schools, whether they are in larger or smaller districts, except in a few of the wealthiest communities (and not much achievement gain can be predicted in those few communities, either).


I am coming up on my 30th high school reunion. A few years ago, I was in Savannah, Georgia, at a shop on River Street when I saw a familiar looking older white man with his wife, standing in line to pay for their purchases. It only took a few seconds for me to realize that this man had been the superintendant of the school district in my hometown back when I was in high school. I walked up to him, said “hey, man, how you doing?” and stuck out my hand. He paused for a second, then said “Kris Broughton – how are you?”

We filled each other in on our current whereabouts and respective vocations – I was in the mortgage business back then, and he had been retired for awhile, still doing a little education consulting when the mood hit him. Granted, I probably spent more time in the Central Office than most students, with various projects and school activities. But I can’t count the number of times I walked down the hall of the district office when his door was open and waved “hello” to him while he was sitting at his desk.

Would a system of smaller school districts like the one I grew up in, instead of one large one serving the Atlanta metro area, have been less likely to present the opportunity for widespread cheating on standardized tests to occur? Would a superintendent in a much smaller Atlanta Public School district system, someone who has actually taught local students and dealt face to face with local parents of the students be less susceptible to encouraging standardized test cheating?

I’ve long thought that the Atlanta Public School system, like most of the public school systems in Atlanta, is too large. But smaller school districts are just the beginning. Our society is prone to gravitate towards one-size-fits-all answers to sustained systemic problems, with a healthy helping of blame on the side that demonizes the teachers and teachers unions, or expects superintendents to be super heroes, creating the outsized and often unrealistic expectations which foster cheating scandals like this one. The truth is, until parents become a lot more involved in the equation, none of these solutions is going to permanently alter the depth and quality of the education their children receive.       


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